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The Actor Who Drew Deep From Within For Her Roles

Smita Patil, the actress who died too young (phot: courtesy Harper Collins)

Smita Patil, the actress who died too young (phot: courtesy Harper Collins)

Only when an actor is totally confident of her craft, of the ability to give her intense best, will she take on the role of ‘the other woman’, the home-breaker. Smita courted the challenge. Bravely so. Not only is she pitted against Shabana, her arch rival, but Shabana has the author-backed role that is guaranteed to gain public sympathy for the betrayed wife with whom millions of women will identify. Mahesh Bhatt pulled off the casting coup of his career in Arth. His best films are unapologetically autobiographical. He delves into the messy depths of his complicated relationships to create films that may look like an orgy of emotional excess at first sight. But there is a core of truth in the way he holds up the most difficult relationships to unsparing light and exposes ravaged emotions without flinching from inflicting pain. On himself and those close to him. The process could be cathartic for him, and as for the viewer, the moot question is – does it make emotional voyeurs of us all?

Some might call this emotional scavenging, even exhibitionism. All creative endeavours are autobiographical at the core. The difference is in the distance, a certain objectivity that the film-maker creates in portraying a personal truth. At his honest best, Mahesh Bhatt succeeds in making the personal into riveting drama that stands by itself. But a public life cannot escape references to real-life parallels, more so when the filmmaker revels in exposing, not disguising, what happened to him. If Janam and Zakhm expose the angst of ‘illegitimacy’ that stigmatized his youth, in Arth he lays bare the break-up of his marriage and the tortured relationship with a mentally unstable Parveen Babi. Arth draws the parallel arc of two women who are in love with an irresolute coward. The rejected wife claws her way to inner strength and independence while the high-profile, emotionally fragile other woman goes to pieces with unresolved guilt.

Testing her limits

Knowing fully well that Shabana was to play the central role of Pooja, the simple homemaker betrayed by Inder’s (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) affair, Smita challenged herself to play Kavita Sanyal, the schizophrenic film star. She was offered the role of the sympathetic Bai whose own marriage to an alcoholic drunk creates another parallel of an exploited woman. Shabana is on record that Smita was to do the role that was finally done by Rohini Hattangadi. Smita told Mahesh Bhatt that she wanted to play Kavita and this necessitated enlarging a role that was originally a small one. According to Lalita Tamhane, Smita was fed up of playing the same old oppressed working class woman. She was perhaps determined to test her limits.

There is this revealing insight from Patricia Bosworth’s book on Jane Fonda. The author was with Jane Fonda at Actors Studio and after ten years on Broadway, went on to become a journalist and well-known biographer. Jane Fonda told her biographer: ‘The weird thing about acting is that you get paid for discovering you have multiple personalities.’ It is Kavita’s fractured personality that Smita brings to painful life with extraordinary conviction, drawing us into her darkest fears and deepest needs. Whatever may be Smita’s route to Kavita, Mahesh Bhatt claims: ‘She was always my original choice. There was never any hesitation in casting for the film the way it was originally conceived. There was a kind of electricity that was hardwired in her. It made her ideal to play that part which required a psychotic woman on the edge. The references could not be rooted from other movies but it was from my own life. I had lived with a woman like this and Smita came close to a woman on the edge. Living a life of uncertainty, probing but not finding answers, or enduring love. Immersed in the business of entertainment, of appearances, the dichotomy between appearance and reality, it was the defining aspect of her personality that was visible. It was there in Smita’s appearance that flaunted her achievements in the seminars attended by the who’s who. In private, she was the same woman who mined the uncertainties that many women face – that being the essence of Arth. This was what made her so right for the role.’

Bhatt implies that Smita was experiencing a similar conflict, between her public image as the poster woman of parallel cinema’s serious intent and the private person who was torn by her love for what a judgemental society would call the wrong man, because he was married and had two children. He maintains that he could see those contradictions in Smita. ‘Of the screen image of a woman with gravitas, the earthy middle-class woman, peasant … that was the prescribed cinema. The kind of cinema that we pretend to bow down to, with reverence. I see that cinema as different kind of a fairy tale, where the perfect woman had all the answers … the economic problems … creating the myth that if the economic concerns were solved, everything was solved. There was no evidence that allowed me to see it that way … whether it was the kaamwali bai who worked through the day and later got beaten up by her drunk of a husband. Similarly with the affluent woman and her search for love, for self-realisation. There was no self-realisation or gratification because self-realisation needed an agency outside. God or a man. You are in a trap.’

It is a moot point if Smita drew from this perceived real-life experience to her interpretation of Kavita. Or is it Mahesh Bhatt dispensing existential philosophy as is his wont? Is the truth an ambivalent mix of both points of view? Jabbar Patel said Smita confided (to his utter dismay) that she was in love with Raj Babbar at the start of Umbartha’s shoot. That was much before Arth. It is all plausible conjecture and she is not here to speak for herself. What really matters is how intensely she internalized a far more complex role that hardly has any precedents in our cinema.

Brittle body language

For all the tremendous conviction that Shabana brought to Pooja, the trajectory of her growth is linear, creating immense empathy. Kavita takes us on a disturbing rollercoaster of emotions. When she is on the screen, we just can’t look away from her wounded eyes. Her brittle body language makes you anxious that she will snap and shatter to pieces any minute. We unconsciously lean forward to catch her husky whisper and every quiver of emotion in her compelling voice. Smita makes us want to know what drives her to the edge, why she is so obsessed with Inder, how deeply she is afraid that he will leave her. She is ruthless in her need to possess Inder and thinks she can salve her conscience by giving him the money to buy Pooja the home she so craves to own. Kavita’s overwhelming passion and playful tenderness leaves Inder helpless. He is her emotional security blanket – Kavita tells her mother over the phone that she feels so safe with Inder, as safe as she had felt with her Papa. Her voice goes half an octave higher, as if she needs to shrilly affirm to her mother that this new man is her anchor in life. Her man is lover and surrogate father figure too. No man, especially one who feels guilty at betraying his wife, can meet so many demands. Kavita’s need is poignant, urgent and blindly self-centred.

Bhatt creates a different space for Kavita’s scenes. There are long takes, very few cutaways when Kavita and Inder are together, whether making passionate love or enjoying postcoital intimacy.

Smita Patil and Her Dasavatars 135 Smita is uninhibited. Her desire-fuelled eyes invite him to drown in their depths. Her gestures are sudden and surprising. She bites Inder’s finger caressing her lips, takes a drop of his sweat and sucks her finger, scorching the scene with heated spontaneity. One long take follows another. They are wrapped in sheets, seated across each other, their profiles in silhouette while Kavita imagines how their child will look, how they will grow old together. The moment of happiness is so fragile, with Kavita expecting so much from it, that we fear its ephemerality. That is what makes Kavita so poignant even after we have experienced Pooja’s overwhelming joy in her own house at last.

Most of Pooja’s scenes are with other people. They are small and intimate. It is as if she is creating and searching for connections with others. That defines her essential humanity, her warmth. So when she is abandoned, her pain smites you like a sharp scimitar. Kavita is isolated in her marbled mansion with its stark decor. ‘That is one of the best things I could get … the contradictions of space,’ confirms Bhatt.

He underlined the threat of suicide with a huge black-andwhite poster of Marilyn Monroe on the landing against which Smita played out scenes of rage and distress beyond bearing. Another sly hint that Inder’s marriage is going through the seven-year itch (Pooja mentions that they have been married for seven years).

Bhatt explains why the scenes with Kavita are filmed in that particular way and the shades of grey in the mise en scène. ‘Spatially, I wanted to keep her in that desolate opulent space. Not cluttered, but where there is a kind of emptiness. She looked desolate in that space.’ About her quicksilver changes of mood, he says: ‘That is the seesaw of emotions. People who have bipolar ailment are vulnerable to this biological malaise. They have these mood swings. Smita understood it. It was a pleasure to work with her. It was a brilliant extension of the fire that was there in me. That was a moment of catharsis. She was the vehicle through which one exorcized a buried dark space.’ About the long takes, he has his reasons: ‘It is a sort of timeless space, for what is perceived as sin. You wanted both in an interrupted sort of space. She was the kind of actor who would just become that entity. She brought a lot of inner journey into that scene. She wanted a baby, that’s what she pined for. I can still remember her looking at him, of her dream of spending her life with him, growing old together. It was a very sincere performance.’

Casting Smita challenged Bhatt to revisit his tumultuous relationship and widen the narrative ambit to explore Kavita’s neurosis. Arth is still the story of how Pooja, an orphan who is emotionally, financially dependent on Inder, goes through the trauma of rejection. She gradually gathers the tattered cloak of self-worth after discovering the strength to live by herself. The essence of Arth is Pooja’s journey into finding herself and Shabana’s once-in-a-lifetime performance resonated with a whole generation of Indian women. Finding herself had not yet become a feminist cliché in the early 1980s.

Excerpted from Smita Patil-A Brief Incandescence by Maithili Rao. Published by Harper Collins